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Umayyad Caliphate

In 661 CE political power shifted away from family of the prophet Muhammad and passed to the descendants of one of the old Quraysh elite families of pre-Islamic Mecca, the Bani Umayya. The first Umayyad caliph, Mu῾awiyah, was the son of Abi Sufyan, the pagan leader of Mecca at its submission to Islam in 630. After Byzantine Syria had been conquered by the Muslims, Mu῾awiyah, now converted to Islam, was appointed as its governor around 640 with Damascus as his seat, replacing the old Byzantine administrative centers at Caesarea and Bosra.

Mu῾awiyah inherited the Greek-based bureaucracy of Syria and Palestine and the Syrian Arab tribal forces, which had formerly defended the old Byzantine desert frontier. These tribes were either Christian or partly converted to Islam initially and they became the military mainstay of the Umayyad regime. In essence, the Umayyads inherited in Syria something of the old Arab Ghassanid federate kingdom that had guarded the eastern frontier of the Byzantine Empire in the sixth century. In his turn, Mu῾awiyah protected the interests of the Syrian tribes by deflecting Arab immigrants from the Arabian Peninsula away from Syria to other territories like Iraq or Egypt.

When the third caliph, ῾Uthman ibn ῾Affan, was murdered in 656, the prophet Muhammad's son-in-law, ῾Ali ibn Abi Talib became caliph. Mu῾awiyah, as a senior relative of ῾Uthman, emerged as the leading protagonist of those seeking retribution for the murdered ῾Uthman, opposing ῾Ali's caliphate for his failure to bring the killers to justice. Mu῾awiyah's Syrian forces fought ῾Ali at Siffin on the Euphrates in north Syria in 657, where it was eventually decided to submit the question of the caliphal succession to arbitration. The negotiations were overtaken when ῾Ali was murdered by a discontented Khawarijite in 661 and Mu῾awiyah emerged as the only figure able to exercise power, and to establish a caliphate. As a result, political power definitively shifted to Damascus and away from Medina.

Among those who opposed this outcome were the Shi῾at ῾Ali, the party of ῾Ali, who were strongly represented in al-Kufa. They held that the Imamate or Islamic leadership rightfully belonged in the family of the Prophet and that it should have passed from ῾Ali to his son al-Husayn. With the killing by Umayyad forces of al-Husayn at Karbala in 680, an intense sense of wrong was engendered among the Shi῾a, enhancing their already deep-seated opposition to the Umayyad regime.

At Mu῾awiyah's succession in 661, the caliphate reached from the western frontier of Libya to the eastern borders of Iran. During ῾Ali's caliphate, the conquests had languished, but they now resumed. The final conquest of North Africa was initiated after the foundation of Qayrawan in 670, which allowed the Muslims to resume their westward advance into the Berber territories of modern Algeria to arrive at the Atlantic by 700. From North Africa, they initiated the conquest of Spain in 710–711, which ended with a deep raid as far as Poitiers near Paris in 732. Meanwhile, the Umayyads also resumed raids into Byzantine Asia Minor, which culminated in the unsuccessful siege of Constantinople in 674–680.

Little remains of monuments built by Mu῾awiyah: a dam at al-Ta'if in the Hijaz has an inscription in his name dated ah 58/677–678 CE, presaging the interest of later Umayyads in irrigation. A description dated to 670 CE of the mosque of al-Aqṣa at Jerusalem—a rough building of reused columns able to accommodate a congregation of three thousand—probably records Mu῾awiyah's work. Nothing remains of Mu῾awiyah's palace at Damascus, the Qubbat al-Khadhra, although it presumably related in some degree to excavated Umayyad urban palaces at al-Kufah, Jerusalem and Amman. The excavations of the palace at al-Kufah, possibly built by the Umayyad governor Ziyad ibn Abihi, show a plan derived from Sasanian forms, with emphasis on the hierarchical position of the governor in formal audience in the palace. This eastern formula found its way thereafter into later Umayyad palaces and eventually into the ῾Abbasid palaces of Baghdad and Samarra.

After the death of Mu῾awiyah in 680, the succession of his son Yazid was not recognized by ῾Ali's son al-Husayn or by ῾Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr. The latter was descended from the ῾Abd al-῾Uzza branch of Quraysh and his mother was the daughter of Abu Bakr, the first caliph: his aunt was ῾A'isha, the Prophet's favorite wife. When Husayn was murdered at Karbala by Umayyad forces, Ibn al-Zubayr announced himself as caliph at Mecca, feeling secure in his strong connections with the Prophet's family. His rebellion was initially successful, and al-Kufah, Egypt, and parts of Arabia and Syria all adhered to his cause. Meanwhile, the Umayyad succession passed to ῾Abd al-Malik of the Marwanid branch of the family, and for over a decade there were two claimants to the caliphate, the one based in Mecca, and the Umayyad candidate in Syria. In the end, the military strength of the Umayyads won out and their hegemony was restored after besieging Mecca and killing Ibn al-Zubayr.

The victory of ῾Abd al-Malik over Ibn al-Zubayr marks the reunification of the caliphate and the beginning of the reconsolidation of the state: in about 695, the administrative system was reformed. Arabic became the official language of the administration, replacing Greek and Pahlavi. The coinage was also reformed, and a purely Islamic coinage was instituted. It was so successful that it set the basic formula of Islamic coinage for centuries thereafter.

Even before the defeat of Ibn al-Zubayr, ῾Abd al-Malik had begun to develop the Ḥaram esh-Sharif enclosure at Jerusalem, the major holy site under his jurisdiction during the civil war. The only Islamic monument in Jerusalem before his day was the rough al-Aqṣa structure already described. North of it, ῾Abd al-Malik built the Dome of the Rock, a great octagon constructed over a natural rocky outcrop, and surmounted by a gold dome. Its formal origins lay in commemorative and celebratory buildings of the Byzantine period, including the Anastasis (327–335), the Church of the Ascension (c. 378), and the Tomb of the Virgin (fifth century), all at Jerusalem. [See Jerusalem.]

The Dome of the Rock was decorated on the exterior and interior with mosaics showing Qur'anic inscriptions with foliage and Sasanian-style crowns. It has been interpreted variously as a monument to the victory of Islam over the other monotheistic religions, and a reference to the Islamic paradise. The decoration would be more readily understandable had Palestinian churches of the Byzantine period survived intact, but even without them, it seems clear that the Dome of the Rock is a product of the islamization of the iconography and architecture of the eastern Mediterranean that had already been the common source of both Christian and Judaic decoration in the Near East.

In the early years of the 8th century, the Umayyads embarked on a series of territorial expansions. As Muslim power was being projected westward to Spain, raids across the Byzantine frontier culminated in the last great Umayyad siege of Constantinople in 716–717. Al-Hajjaj, their vigorous governor in the east (al-Mashriq), founded al-Wasit in Iraq in 702–705 as an administrative town from which he governed Iran and Khurasan. When the Muslim forces resumed their eastward conquests, they advanced beyond the old Sasanian borders towards the Iranian and Turkic lands of Transoxiana (Ma wara nahr) in Central Asia. At the same time the Muslims carried their advance as far as Sind (modern Pakistan) in India where a mosque has been excavated at Banbhore, dated to in 727–728.

The wealth deriving from these conquests coincides with the foundation by the first Marwanids of a series of major new Islamic buildings, almost all mosques. These provided the community with monuments comparable with the great imperial Byzantine monuments in the Near East. Al-Walid I completed al-Aqsa at Jerusalem as well as the palace at Jerusalem in a program of extravagant grandeur that had been initiated by his father, ῾Abd al- Malik. This included the Ḥaram Mosque at Mecca; the Great Mosque of San῾a in Yemen with materials from the sixth century cathedral, and the Mosque of ῾Amr at al-Fustat, which was covered with mosaics.

The Prophet's mosque at Medina (707–709) was also expanded to incorporate the tombs of the Prophet and the first two caliphs. The walls were clad with marble paneling and wall mosaics showing trees and buildings, although nothing of this scheme, survives. The only indications of the quality of these lost decorations is preserved in the contemporary mosaics of the Great Mosque of Damascus which al-Walid I also enlarged and lavishly decorated with marble, gold leaf, and glass wall mosaics, with a river, trees and architecture.

The architectural motif that is so significant in the Medina and Damascus mosaics was an inheritance from Late Antique imagery in which it was used in geographical contexts and as a general honorific frame for apostles, saints, and books of the Gospels. Adapted to an Islamic context, the same element of honor persists, so that a Qur'an of Umayyad date found at San῾a also has an architectural frontispiece. Likewise, a series of stylized columns and arches appear in chapter headings of an Umayyad Qur'an found in the mosque of ῾Amr ibn al-῾Aṣ at al-Fustat: the process at work in all these cases is that of adapting pre-Islamic subject matter to Islamic purposes.

The Arabic sources vary as to the authors of the Umayyad mosaics. It is said that Byzantine craftsmen participated in the decoration of the Prophet's mosque at Medina although it is also suggested that the craftsmen were Syrian and Egyptian craftsmen from within the caliphate. The wall mosaics of the churches of the pre-Islamic Near East are almost entirely lost, and very little pre-Islamic painting survives either, although both must have been more influential on Umayyad art than we can ever know. However, the discovery of sophisticated pre-Islamic paintings at Qaryat al-Fau in Saudi Arabia and at Shabwa in Yemen suggests that there may have been an Arabian antecedent for the Umayyads' taste for mural decoration. [See Qaryat al-Fau; Shabwa.]

The mosaics at the Dome of the Rock and the Great Mosque of Damascus are the earliest surviving Umayyad religious decorations. Their carefully selected content suggests the existence of some element in Islamic society self-conscious of Islam's need to present its credo visually and to be able to select motifs that conveyed the religious beliefs of the Muslims. They relentlessly excluded representations of living beings, relying on nonfigurative motifs drawn from Byzantine and Sasanian traditions, and Qur'anic inscriptions in Kufic script. This formative process created an Islamic artistic vocabulary, appropriate to the most important religious monuments of the caliphate. However, no true synthesis can be said to have been achieved at this stage, and there is no coherent Umayyad “style” as there was a century or more later under the ῾Abbasids.

Knowledge of Umayyad urban settlements has greatly increased since the 1980s. Umayyad secular architecture was once most familiar from the palatial buildings in the countryside and on the desert margins of Jordan and Syria. These must still be regarded as a very important part of the Umayyad architectural record, reflecting taste, self-image and the interests of the Umayyad aristocratic elite, and a major means for understanding Umayyad society, but they should also be seen in context of a far broader pattern of settlement and building in the towns and villages of the region.

A distortion in our understanding of the evidence also deserves comment. Jordan is exceptionally well documented archaeologically for this period when richer areas like Palestine, Syria, and Iraq are less well-understood. The same is still more true of Arabia. This distortion may thus give overly great emphasis to Jordan and its monuments.

Towns like Caesarea, Jerash, Beisan (Beth-Shean) and Umm el-Jimal have been excavated, and they show that settlement continued unbroken from Roman and Byzantine times into the early Islamic period, although particular buildings often underwent a change of use, were adapted, or were built anew. This pattern was probably common in many of the old established towns of Palestine and Syria. Faced with a vital economy, the Umayyads seem to have been careful to avoid disrupting the existing settlements in Syria and Palestine. [See Caesarea; Jerash; Beth-Shean; and Umm el-Jimal.]

Umayyad palaces in the major urban centers are better known today since the excavations at the Qala῾ at Amman, the palace at Jerusalem adjacent to al-Aqsa, and the palace at al-Kufa. Of these sites, the Amman citadel is the best understood: it stands within the old Roman fortifications of Jebal al-Qal῾a, overlooking Amman. It has a formal reception hall that reveals a strong Sasanian element in its decoration and design, conforming to a general tendency to adopt Sasanian imperial forms which is marked in the later Umayyad period.

Apart from these buildings, major lost Umayyad urban palaces include Mu῾awiyah's Qubbat al-Khadra῾ at Damascus, and the palaces at al-Wasit, al-Fustat, and Ramla, founded as the local government center in Palestine by Sulayman ibn ῾Abd al-Malik around 715, when Umayyad attention to Jerusalem was waning: it is still largely unstudied.

No single explanation accounts for the numerous Umayyad rural sites, and many of them probably served a variety of purposes. Some were probably related to the need to retain contact with important tribal leaders who were the mainstay of the military forces holding together the vast Umayyad Empire. Some sites seem to have presaged the caravanserais of later Islamic times. Qaṣr al-Kharana (ca 710) and Qaṣr al-Tuba (743–744) in the Jordanian desert seem to have fulfilled this role, and there are buildings at Qaṣr al-Ḥayr al-Gharbi and Qaṣr al-Ḥayr ash-Sharqi, which have also been described as khans or caravanserais. [See Qaṣr al-Ḥayr al- Gharbi; Qaṣr al-Ḥayr ash- Sharqi.]

Some of these rural buildings suggest a peripatetic Umayyad monarchy, as the princes of the ruling house moved from residence to residence according to season and need. Some places like Khirbat al-Minya and Khirbat al-Mafjar in Palestine were too hot to live in comfortably in summer but would have been clement in winter. The peripatetic nature of the Umayyads also shows itself in the shifting seat of the caliphate. Although Damascus was Mu῾awiyah's seat, and he seems to have built nothing in the desert, he would camp in the bādi ya where the later Umayyad palaces of al-Muwaqqar, Qastal, and al-Meshatta were eventually built. Later, Sulayman developed Ramla in Palestine, Yazid II lived at Muwaqqar and Beit Ras in Jordan, and Hisham lived on the Euphrates at Rusafa. The last Umayyad caliph, Marwan II, chose to live at Harran (now in southern Turkey). [See Mafjar, Khirbat al-; Qaṣr al-Meshatta; Ramla; Beit Ras; and Rusafa.]

The finest of the late Umayyad palaces are marked by lavish extravagance, especially those associated with Hisham and al- Walid II. After the assassination of al-Walid II in 744, his successor was forced to abjure extravagant building projects and the failure to complete al-Meshatta and al-Tuba has been taken as a consequence of al-Walid's fall.

There is a marked concentration of these palatial buildings in the countryside of Jordan, Palestine, and Syria, reflecting the Umayyads' attachment to these districts. The distribution of many of their rural foundations suggests that they were sited in relation to particular roads: Qaṣr Burqu῾, Khirbet al-Bayda', and Qaṣr Jabal Usays are located along a desert road from north Arabia through the Wadi es-Sirḥan to central Syria. Qaṣr al-Tuba of al-Walid II in eastern Jordan lies on a route from Tayma' and the Sirḥan. Al-Qastal, al-Muwaqqar, and al-Meshatta are located on the more westerly route between Amman and the Hijaz, the preferred pilgrim road from Syria throughout the Islamic period. Khirbat al-Minya near Tiberias is close to the road from Damascus to Ramla and Minya, which was still a halt on the official postal route (barid) in the thirteenth century, and Khirbat al-Mafjar (c. 735) near Jericho is close to the road from Amman to Jerusalem.

Qaṣr al-Ḥayr al-Gharbi, Qaṣr al-Ḥayr ash- Sharqi, and Khirbat al-Mafjar preserve evidence of large-scale irrigation systems installed to serve their surrounding agricultural estates and these palaces have been compared to Roman latifundia. At both Khirbat al-Mafjar and Qaṣr al- Ḥayr al-Gharbi, there is decorative imagery that reflects the agricultural character of the estates amidst which these palaces stood. Thus, al-Mafjar, the floor mosaics of the vast bath-hall include a representation of an ethrog and a lulab, Jewish symbols of the harvest that are found in Palestinian synagogue mosaics. At Qaṣr al-Ḥayr al- Gharbi, one of the great floor paintings shows a Greek earth goddess, Gaia, holding a cloth full of fruit, abundance appropriate to an agricultural estate.

At other sites, the agricultural element is less pronounced or absent altogether. Qaṣr al-Ḥallabat in northern Jordan is attributed to Hisham and was one of several buildings which were formerly Roman limes (border) fortresses. Ḥallabat was reconstructed as a palace, with a limited area of field terracing. However, numerous representations of prey in its floor mosaics suggest that a major activity of its residents was hunting. Ḥallabat is also an interesting example of the way in which the old Roman defense line on the desert was made redundant by Islam's creation of a border-free territory from the Indian Ocean to north Syria, for the first time since the fall of the Nabateans in the second century CE.

As the decorative scheme of the Ḥallabat mosaics imply, hunting was a favored pastime of the aristocracy, just as it had been with the Romans, the Byzantines, and the Sasanians. It was also a significant aspect of life and art in pre-Islamic Arabia where hunting may have had a sacred character. The chase is also represented in the desert bathhouse of Quṣayr ῾Amra and at Qaṣr al-Ḥayr al-Gharbi, the latter in a style derived from Sasanian imagery. It is a clear enough indication of the importance of the chase to the Umayyads. [See Qaṣr al-Ḥallabat; Quṣayr ῾Amra.]

Umayyad paintings, sculptures and mosaics show a remarkable diversity and it is clear that the Umayyads had no reluctance to include representations of living beings as long as the context was not religious in character. There is also a persistent desire to show Umayyad princes in the context of the standard royal imagery of the period—the six kings of the world at Quṣayr ῾Amra, in a standard Byzantine formula; or the plaster sculptures of Hisham in Sasanian garb that stood over the exterior doorways at al-Mafjar and Qaṣr al-Ḥayr al-Gharbi. Hisham's concern with the appearance of Sasanian royalty was also demonstrated in his interest in a volume of representations of past Sasanian princes and their dress, reflecting growing preference for Sasanian models in the later Umayyad period.

The death of Hisham in 743 marks the beginning of a period of turbulence that finally culminated in the collapse of the Umayyad regime in 750. As tensions between Umayyad factions undermined the strength of the regime from within, the effort of ruling the caliphate through the over-stretched Syrian tribal forces at their disposal finally became too much. Those excluded from power by the regime and its supporters increasingly showed their resentment in Islam-inspired insurrection against the government. The Shi῾a especially had never been reconciled to Umayyad rule, and others felt excluded from power by an Umayyad monopoly. A series of rebellions gave expression to these sentiments, culminating in an uprising in Khurasan in the name of the ῾Abbasid family, whose claim to rule was rooted in their descent from the Prophet's uncle, al-῾Abbas. Leading a coalition of anti-Umayyad forces, the ῾Abbasids defeated the Umayyad armies in Khurasan and advanced on northern Syria and Egypt, where the last Umayyad caliph, Marwan II, was killed in the Faiyum. The Umayyad clan was massacred and replaced by an ῾Abbasid caliphate that avoided Syria and its hostility toward them. Instead, they made Iraq their seat of government, where the center of gravity in terms of the economy and population had already shifted, and this was reflected in the foundation of Baghdad in 762. The ῾Abbasids' caliphate was a far more centralized state than that of the Umayyads. The ῾Abbasids emphasized their religious claims to hold the office of caliph, where the Umayyads had emphasized their family's prestige and lineage in terms more tribal than Islamic. However, caution must always be exercised in any interpretation of the Umayyads' intentions, as the historical sources for the period are provided principally by authors working under the hostile ῾Abbasids, ensuring that the Umayyads were presented in the worst of irreligious lights. The Umayyad monuments are thus especially important as sources which generally eluded the ῾Abbasid interpolation of the record.

After their fall, sympathy for Umayyad claimants persisted in Syria but the country itself became a backwater, eclipsed by Iraq and Egypt, and it only reemerged to prominence in the twelfth century under the Zangids and Ayyubids. However, in Spain an Umayyad regime continued, refounded with emigré Syrian support in 755 at Cordoba by ῾Abd al-Rahman I (a grandson of Hisham), who had escaped the massacre of his relations. Secure in their Spanish exile, the Umayyads were to enjoy a quite extraordinary efflorescence, which endured until the early eleventh century.

[See also ῾Abbasid Caliphate; Damascus; Fustat; Mecca; Medina; Mosque; and San῾a.]


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G. R. D. King

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